Gagandeep Kang, 56, is Director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI) in Faridabad. Acclaimed for her key role in the development of Rotavac, India’s first indigenously developed vaccine for rotavirus infections, Kang was recently awarded Fellowship of the Royal Society (FRS), United Kingdom — the first Indian woman scientist to be thus feted. In an interview, she spoke about the challenges of being a woman scientist in India and why the country would do well with a 40% job reservation for women. Excerpts:
Do you think the ‘woman scientist tag’ occludes your achievements as a scientist?
I was once awarded a ‘Woman Bioscientist of the Year’ prize. The first time I got it, I thought, ‘That’s nice,’ but I’d rather be competing on a stage where gender doesn’t matter. The nice thing about the FRS is that they don’t give it to you because you are a woman. That label is important in India as we don’t have enough female role models in science. There are outstanding mathematicians, physicists, biologists around but they aren’t promoted enough. In terms of sheer numbers, there are fewer women.
Has a woman scientist influenced your career choice?
No... but has certainly helped me grow. My best collaborators are women. There are two in the U.S. and one in the U.K. and we’ve been associated with one another for over two decades. We get along so well and support each other. I find them much more supportive than many of the men I have collaborated with. Of course, I do work with a lot of good men. The three strongest people I’m associated with are women and they are role models in their own right.
You’ve worked abroad and spent a lot of time in India. Do you think hierarchy is more rigid in India and in our scientific institutions?
Absolutely. No question about it. We grow up in a culture where to question is to question authority, and I see that in my Ph.D students. If I need them to ask questions, it requires two years of group-prodding and even then it will take them a long time to ask me and tell me that they actually know more about a particular topic than I do. They don’t proffer opinions. They don’t question you.
Does this prevail across, say, colleges in towns, villages, the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research?
There will always be one or two who are clearly in the habit of asking questions. But in an American school or college, for instance, there’s much greater fearlessness in asking questions. Several Southeast Asian countries have a similar (lack of forthrightness) like in India. This is a problem because I feel our children (in India) are so beaten down by the problem of having to regurgitate what you learn and it’s difficult for them to think independently. Even in school projects, we’re very good at gaming the system. You can buy your school projects now… that defeats the purpose.
How were you as a student-- Forthright and interrogative?
I was terrified (laughs). Okay, not terrified but I tend to take longer to process things. So I’d ask questions after a class. Now I’ve gotten to a point where I will question when a conversation is ongoing. I just have less time to waste.
Once upon a time, institutions like the Royal Society were critical to the development of science itself. For instance, funding novel ideas, publishing and transacting scientific work… today, the practice and dissemination of science is no longer dependent on the congregation or meetings of academies. What purpose do these institutions serve today?
That’s not entirely true. Prior to the fellowship, I have been associated with the Royal Society. They fund meetings and, with colleagues of mine in the U.K., I had applied to hold a meeting. And it was one of the nicest such gatherings because the structure is small with very intense discussion. We had a group of 60 discussing biological challenges to vaccination in developing countries. It was the most fun science. It’s London, experts come from everywhere. Everybody comes and you can take your post-doctorates and students to the meeting. Everybody talks and in the end you produce a supplement — Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society — and those journals are the state-of-the-art in the field. That’s invaluable because you’ve set the stage for any advancement in that particular field. So the Royal Society does serve a very important function.
You are also a member of Indian science academies. In terms of the influence that our academies bring to research, public awareness of science and government action, how do we compare to, say, the Royal Society?
I’m a member of Indian science academies. I’m not a member of the medical sciences academy. I don’t know why we have so many. When you have three (as we now do), you are diluting effort. I’m on committees for a couple of the science academies. My experience is that you don’t influence policy or science as much as if you just had a single academy. I think the multiplicity comes from people deciding that they want their academy to be the pre-eminent academy. Honestly, that doesn’t make sense to me. I think scientists need a voice and I see the INSA (Indian National Science Academy) and the IAS (Indian Academy of Sciences) trying to do more in this area. They do succeed in reaching out to students but there isn’t enough of a strategic engagement.
Does being an FRS bring about specific obligations, commitments?
I don’t know, I’ll find out. I guess, I’ll have to go for the induction in July. Honestly, I haven’t had time to read up about it.
As director of THSTI, how much time do you get for your own research? Do administration and management occupy the bulk of your time?
I don’t read enough. However, I knew that administration and coordination would take up a lot of my time before I took on this responsibility. The reason for my coming here was to shape an endeavour that the Department of Biotechnology had started. I wasn’t part of the conceptualisation (of the institute) but had sat on enough of their scientific advisory committees to see that it wasn’t going where it was supposed to go as envisioned. I think we are getting there.
Does being a woman director bring about unique challenges?
When I got there, it was hard. It took me a long time to get to where I am with the faculty and students. I took it slowly every step of the way. When I got there, there was only one woman on the faculty — the dean. There were scientists but not faculty members. The atmosphere was, so to say, North-Indian-male heavy.
As director, you’ve taken the occupational safety of women at your workplace extremely seriously. A senior scientist at THSTI had to resign after being found guilty of harassment. What kind of lasting change has that brought about?
I would like to think that anyone in charge would have taken such issues seriously. The fact that we ran training programmes (on workplace harassment, laws) made a difference to people.
You shouldn’t have to work in an environment where you are scared and that seems to happen in professional circles a lot. That has nothing to do with sexual harassment. It’s because a power structure is created where the work you do has to be responsive to hierarchy. When I joined the Department of Biotechnology, I was the only woman director. Now, the number stands at two out of 16 institutions.
What’s the proportion of women faculty?
In the new faculty I’ve hired, it’s 50:50. When you have women in the conversation, it changes the flavour of the conversation. In science at least, when there are women involved, discussions are far more outcome-oriented. That’s because women have to do their science and something else. Just as CMC, Vellore, has a requirement of at least 40% women in its workforce, I’d like it to be applicable across institutions. If almost half the world’s population is women, why should you have only one-third or 25% reservation? It’s something that we all have to actively work towards.
You trained as a clinical gastroenterologist. How did you become a researcher?
I did medicine. I did microbiology and then the idea of spending all my time in a lab was really, really boring. My father was an engineer, my mother is a teacher. We have doctors in the family. Maths, physics, chemistry and biology were my best subjects. It was a question of ‘Do I do physics, or medicine?’ and I chose medicine. After post-graduation, I had a choice between studying neurological infections or gut-intestinal infections. Neurological ones didn’t seem challenging enough. The gut is much more complicated and I thought, ‘Ok, let’s see what can be done with the gut.’
How did you begin working on rotavirus infections?
So, the reason that I wound up working with rotavirus is because everybody told me what I could not work on. ‘This is my turf, and that is somebody else’s turf,’ and I found this one poor bug that nobody was interested in. And I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll leave all your things alone and work on this,’ and that’s how it began.
So you picked up rotavirus because it fell between the cracks of research specialities?
Nobody was interested. Diarrhoea wasn’t glamorous and among the diarrhoeas, the (bugs) that caused dysentery were more glamorous because of the severity of disease. Acute, watery diarrhoea was nobody’s interest. That was also the time of the O139 cholera outbreak. It was big and when I wanted to work on it, I was told not to. It was powerful men and powerful women telling me, ‘This is my turf. Don’t come here.’ It seems silly in hindsight but that was the way things worked then.
How did the idea of developing a vaccine come about?
I didn’t work on the vaccine. My interest was in understanding the correlates of protection against rotavirus with the idea that if you understood the correlates, you will be able to later make a better vaccine. That still is the case. The way we set it up was to recreate a study done in Mexico in India. The idea was to use new tools, more samples and find out which children were protected from infection, investigate immune responses and figure out a correlate of protection. We failed miserably. But the whole exercise led to a lot of insight in understanding gut function in Indian children and an interest in nutrition.
The vaccine development came about independent of this?
That came about because I started to do surveillance across the country for rotavirus-variants trying to find all the different kinds of genotypes. This led to the development of high quality laboratory methods for the detection of rotaviruses. I got a random phone call to have Richard (Dick) Ward (who’d developed a rotavirus vaccine for GSK, in the U.S.) visit my lab at the Christian Medical College, Vellore. He asked if we’d be interested in measuring immune responses for vaccines.
So a student of mine and I trained at Dick’s lab and we managed to establish the vaccine-assays (tests to measure the potency of a vaccine) in India, while other labs in India trying to do the same were struggling. Soon, people in India working on rotavirus vaccine development learnt about our assays. I got a call from Dr. M.K. Bhan (a paediatrician, and former Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, who’d found a strain of rotavirus that didn’t seem to be affecting certain children) who asked if we’d be interested in Rotavac (made by Bharat Biotech, it became India’s first indigenously developed rotavirus vaccine).